Queen Sonja of Norway on sitting for Andy Warhol and becoming an artist

Queen Sonja of Norway on sitting for Andy Warhol and becoming an artist

Short of a toad that turns into a prince, the life of Queen Sonja of Norway has the hallmarks of a fairy tale. Born in 1937, Sonja Haraldsen grew up in the Oslo suburb of Vinderen, in effect an only child. Her two much older siblings left for Sweden in 1940 at the start of the German occupation, and another brother had died.

So her parents kept her close and, hoping she would work in and eventually take over her father’s dress-making and ladieswear shop in central Oslo, sent her at 16 to learn tailoring at Oslo Vocational School and thence to Lausanne for two years – ‘I chose Switzerland so I could go skiing, but then I got hooked on learning French,’ she tells me – to study accounting and fashion design at the Ecole Professionnelle des Jeunes Filles.

Back in Oslo, she was 21 when she met Crown Prince Harald at a party thrown by a mutual friend, a classmate of the heir apparent. The Prince was poised to leave the Norwegian Military Academy and invited her to his graduation ball.

It would be glib to say the rest was history. The Royal House of Norway was having none of it. No European heir or crowned head had married a commoner: the Prince’s mother had been born Princess Märtha of Sweden, his grandmother was the British King Edward VII’s youngest daughter, Princess Maud of Wales. It was only after nine long years that the palace relented and their engagement was announced. Within six months, in August 1968, they were married. Their son, Crown Prince Haakon, was born five years later, and two years after, they had a daughter, Princess Märtha Louise.

But since the accession of King Harald V to the throne in January 1991, the nation has taken Queen Sonja to its heart. Each year on 17 May, Norway’s National Day, the Palace Park, one of Oslo’s main public spaces, is thronged with flag-waving citizens come to watch the royal family wave from the palace balcony.

The Norwegian royal family with Queen Sonja and King Harald V at the centre CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES

Last summer, Queen Sonja’s childhood home, a white clapboard house with a red-tile roof, built in 1935 in the Funk (for functionalist) style, became a museum, after its exterior was carefully dismantled and moved from its original site to Maihaugen, near Lillehammer, where it was restored.

It is, nevertheless, a far cry from where she resides today. Elegantly dressed in trousers and a long cardigan, she greets me with a warm smile and a handshake in what my instructions refer to as Her Majesty’s Audience Chamber, but which the liveried footman who has shown me upstairs to the piano nobile of the palace, calls the Queen’s study.

It is a splendid room: crimson damask on the walls, furniture heavy with ormolu. The reason for my audience is her print award, the world’s largest international prize for printmaking. Established by the HM Queen Sonja Art Foundation in 2011, this year’s winner will be announced at an award ceremony at London’s Royal Academy of Arts on 8 November. Art is a subject close to her heart, not just as a patron and collector, but as an artist and printmaker.

As a child it never occurred to her to want to be an artist, but, ‘I was 10 or 12 when I got my first camera,’ she tells me, and she has been taking pictures ever since. It wasn’t till 2006, however, while visiting Spitsbergen in Arctic Norway, that she understood photography’s true potential as a medium. She had descended, on foot, deep into a meltwater tunnel.

‘It was completely dark,’ she recalls. Her torch wasn’t working, so she had to rely on the light from her camera. ‘And suddenly through the screen I saw these lines and colours, beautiful things we simply couldn’t see with our eyes.’

Queen Sonja in New York in 2005 alongside Andy Warhol’s portrait of her from 1982 CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES

These extraordinary images inspired her to start making abstract art shortly before she turned 70, specifically prints, which she learnt to make on a visit to Ateljé Larsen, an eminent studio in Helsingborg, Sweden, with two celebrated Norwegian artists, the late Kjell Nupen and the great landscape painter Ørnulf Opdahl. Here she experimented with monotypes (a single print taken from a painted design), learning to manipulate colours – her work is all about colour – with multiple layers of ink and sometimes subsequent applications of watercolour.

‘It’s a magical feeling to see something you’ve imagined and been thinking about realised in that way,’ Queen Sonja says. And she enjoyed the physicality of the process.

‘It’s hard work turning those big, big plates. My back was nearly broken.’ Though she is too modest to say so, her work was good. Good enough for the Royal Academy of Arts president, the artist Christopher Le Brun, to invite her to submit a print to this year’s Summer Exhibition, where her intaglio work, Surprising Angles, hung in the South Sackler Gallery alongside works by Cornelia Parker and David Hockney, whom she calls a ‘wonderful artist and printmaker’, and who will receive a lifetime achievement award from her foundation next month.

As to how the prize come about, over dinner on her last evening in Helsingborg with Opdahl and Nupen, ‘Kjell suddenly turned to me and said, “Sonja, what are you going to do with your prints? You can’t just put them away in a drawer.”’ She had always dreamed of establishing a prize for artists. Here was an impetus. The three of them would publish and sell the work they had made: a portfolio of 24 prints, eight each, produced in an edition of 50. And the proceeds would be ‘the economic base’ for the award.

Surprising Angles by Queen Sonja, intaglio print, which was shown at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibtion this year

The biennial award is worth NOK 400,000 (almost £37,500) to the winner. In alternating years there is also a second grant in memory of Nupen, who died in 2014, for emerging Nordic artists, which includes a week at the fabled Universal Limited Art Editions workshop in New York, the fine-art printer used by Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Ed Ruscha.

Indeed, Queen Sonja herself has spent time there collaborating with Magne Furuholmen – better known to readers of a certain age as Mags from the 1980s boy band A-ha, now a visual artist – on a portfolio of prints incorporating his interest in text and hers in nature. Hence the title of the ensuing book and exhibition, Texture, which toured across Norway and to London. Again proceeds went towards the prize.

Queen Sonja’s printmaking may have grown out of her interest in photography – ‘Mostly now I use my iPhone, though I have a Kodak digital camera, and transfer the pictures on to my Mac,’ says the Queen, who I note is also wearing an Apple Watch – but Opdahl also taught her to paint watercolours en plein air. ‘You see landscape in another way and notice things you didn’t see before.

‘I came back from France last night,’ she says, explaining she had opened an exhibition at the National Ceramics Museum in Sèvres with the French culture minister (‘This is how we should be exchanging ideas between countries’), featuring work by three Norwegian artists, two of them ceramicists. Margit Tingleff’s works, in particular, stuck her as ‘just fantastic. Her dishes are two metres long, and like landscape paintings.’

As for her own career as an artist, she has always been keen on crafts. She knits and embroiders. ‘And then I started making plates,’ she says, citing the influence of Picasso’s ceramics. Her major achievement has been to cover a chimney breast and adjoining wall with tiles she made herself, a space ‘three or four metres by two and a half’ – at her summer house, Mågerø.

Queen Sonja at work in her own studio earlier this year

But printmaking remains her main interest, and prints make up the bulk of her art collection, which runs to more than 700 works. A Picasso print was among her early acquisitions, but mostly it features work by fellow Norwegians and American artists such as Robert Motherwell, Helen Frankenthaler and Jasper Johns.

The walls of Queen Sonja’s study, however, are hung with paintings that offer clues to her biography. First there are the two striking canvases by Jakob Weidermann, Norway’s pioneering proponent of abstraction, whom she met as a teenager through Johan Stenersen, the friend who introduced her to her husband. It was also through him, a nephew of the noted art collector Rolf Stenersen, a neighbour of Queen Sonja’s parents, that she came to sit for Andy Warhol. The resulting portrait hangs opposite her desk.

In 1982, she had been on a tour of the US with a delegation of Nordic royals, and, ‘We had one day off in New York. I said I’d like to visit an artist.’ Of course there were protocols to observe, she explains, but an appointment at Warhol’s famous Factory was duly approved. ‘It was like having an audience with a king,’ she recalls. ‘We had to wait.’ But that gave her a chance to ‘sneak around and look at things: he had a lot of Claes Oldenburg. And when we met, he was pleasant. Quite severe, and also very timid and shy.’

Stenersen asked her if she would like to sit for him. ‘“Well, I don’t know,” I replied.’ Again there was the question of protocol. (Warhol’s subsequent Reigning Queens series was based on existing photographs.) ‘I knew that the [Norwegian] National Gallery would like to have one. But I was going to meet my husband at the 21 Club, so Johan asked Andy if we could come back. We discussed it over lunch, and my husband said yes. So back we went, and Andy put chalk all over my face [literally on her skin] so that there would not be any lines. And he took 38 pictures, I think, from all angles. And then he made the six paintings. The Polaroids are in my collection too. I got them for my birthday. The whole thing was a very special experience.’

Queen Sonja printing in her studio

Two of the paintings now hang in museums in Oslo. They are classic bold Warhol, a stylised silkscreen print on to which he painted flat areas of colour using polymer paint to highlight her hair, lips and the collar of her dress. But if she’s smiling in that portrait, her gaze confident and direct, life as Norway’s Crown Princess was not without challenges.

The way she has talked of the painting For Example by Liv Ørnvall, whichhangs behind her desk, gives some clue to what came next. ‘It is very much linked to my own life. [It] shows a woman in a white dress in a very large building. She seems to be lost. She is standing on a staircase she has to climb – an overwhelming task. When I got married, my father-in-law, King Olav, didn’t think it necessary for me to have my own office. So I had to move from one room to another. It took 22 years till I had [one of] my own at the Palace. There are 22 steps in the staircase in Liv’s painting. One for every year I spent without an office.’

She has also spoken movingly about her daughter-in-law, Crown Princess Mette-Marit – who was not only a commoner but a single mother and former waitress whose four-year-old son was fathered by a convicted drug dealer when she married Queen Sonja’s elder child, Crown Prince Haakon. ‘There have been moments when I regretted the path I chose in life,’ says Queen Sonja. ‘Being subjected to such pressure for such long periods of time, I think one suffers for the rest of one’s life.’

But her position has enabled her to meet – and learn from – a host of artists. In New York she visited Rauschenberg at his SoHo studio.

‘It was great fun! He had lots of stories,’ she recalls, though decorum deters her from repeating them. The pop artist James Rosenquist and his wife Mimi Thompson became friends too. ‘He was a very, very nice man, and I saw Mimi last time I was in New York.’

Then there was the Catalan painter Antoni Tàpies (himself a marquis), and the radical feminist artist Judy Chicago, who once asked Queen Sonja if she was a feminist too. (‘“Yes!” I replied. To my own surprise.’) And Henry Moore, whom she met when he had a retrospective in Norway. ‘He asked if I would like to visit his studio near Much Hadham [in Hertfordshire]. He told me that when he enrolled at art school, he’d thought he would like to study painting, but the queue was so long. It was much shorter for sculpture, so he joined that one instead.’

She erupts with infectious mirth. And then the clock in the corner strikes, and my time is up. Though she is 81, Queen Sonja’s schedule is relentless. There is no such thing as a typical day. Tomorrow she is off to Mågerø for a long weekend by the sea ahead of a gruelling state visit to China the following week. But this evening there is a party for one of her five grandchildren. Are any of them artistic? I ask.

‘My children, no,’ she replies. ‘But some of the grandchildren, I think. Especially the eldest [Maud]. She’s 15, and I think she may be an artist. I hope so, anyway. For her sake!’